Jane Goodall turned 80 last year and many of us who have had the privilege to know and work with her were asked to write something as a birthday gift to her. This compilation of those essays just was published and the essay below of my first meeting with Jane was included. I have other tales of Gombe that I’ve written over the years on this blog since I was there in 1975, but this is one of my most vivid memories of Jane herself.
Standing outside a non-descript door in a long dark windowless hallway of offices at the Stanford Medical Center, I took a deep breath and swallowed several times to clear my dry throat. I hoped I had found the correct office, as there was only a number– no nameplate to confirm who was inside.
I was about to meet a childhood hero, someone whose every book I’d read and every TV documentary I had watched. I knocked with what I hoped was the right combination of assertiveness (“I want to be here to talk with you and prove my interest”) and humility (“I hope this is convenient for you as I don’t want to intrude”). I heard a soft voice on the other side say “Come in” so I slowly opened the door.
It was a bit like going through the wardrobe to enter Narnia. Bright sunlight streamed into the dark hallway as I stepped over the threshold. Squinting, I stepped inside and quickly shut the door behind me as I realized there were at least four birds flying about the room. They were taking off and landing, hopping about feeding on bird seed on the office floor and on the window sill. The windows were flung wide open with a spring breeze rustling papers on the desk. The birds were very happy occupying the sparsely furnished room, which contained only one desk, two chairs and Dr. Jane Goodall.
She stood up and extended her hand to me, saying, quite unnecessarily, “Hello, I’m Jane” and offered me the other chair when I told her my name. She was slighter than she appeared when speaking up at a lectern, or on film. Sitting back down at her desk, she busied herself reading and marking her papers, seemingly occupied and not to be disturbed. It was as if I was not there at all.
It was disorienting. In the middle of a bustling urban office complex containing nothing resembling plants or a natural environment, I had unexpectedly stepped into a bird sanctuary instead of sitting down for a job interview. I wasn’t sure what I was supposed to do or say. Jane didn’t really ever look directly at me, yet I was clearly being observed. So I waited, watching the birds making themselves at home in her office, and slowly feeling at home myself. I felt my tight muscles start to relax and I loosened my grip on the arms of the chair.
There was silence except for the twittering of the finches as they flew about our heads.
After awhile she spoke, her eyes still perusing papers: “It is the only way I can tolerate being here for any length of time. They keep me company. But don’t tell anyone; the people here would think this is rather unsanitary.”
I said the only thing I could think of: “I think it is magical. It reminds me of home.”
Only then did she look at me. “Now tell me why you’d like to come work at Gombe…”
The next day I received a note from her letting me know I was accepted for the research assistantship. I had proven I could sit silently and expectantly, waiting for something, or perhaps nothing at all, to happen. For a farm girl who never before traveled outside the United States, I was about to embark on an adventure far beyond the barnyard.